Mark Mellman: The GOP race, then and now

Mark Mellman: The GOP race, then and now

I last examined the Republican presidential nominating contest in February — and my thoughts proved, well, worthless.

“For now,” I concluded, “keep an eye on [Scott] Walker and recognize that [Chris] Christie’s stock is overhyped. [Jeb] Bush and [Rand] Paul have real work to do — others can still win it, but [Donald] Trump won’t.”

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I don’t think I’ve written more embarrassing words, but having freely confessed my errors, I’m ready to take another stab — hopefully one with a little more shelf life.

What has happened since February is important. 

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was then leading in Iowa and running second in New Hampshire. Moreover, while a number of voters didn’t know him, few disliked him.

That changed. 

Walker proved inept as a national candidate, unable to hold his own in debates or interviews. And to prove his ineptitude, he misspent vast sums of money, leaving him broke long before the starting gate even opened.

By contrast, in February, four months before his announcement, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpJimmy Carter: 'I hope there's an age limit' on presidency White House fires DHS general counsel: report Trump to cap California trip with visit to the border MORE was, I said, “disliked by everyone, everywhere.”

Days before my piece, the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll put him at 1 percent in the Hawkeye State, while other polls had him between 2 percent and 4 percent in New Hampshire.

And while 28 percent of Iowa Republicans had a favorable impression of him, a vast 68 percent harbored unfavorable views. New Hampshire results were similar.

Being best known for saying “you’re fired” was apparently not a ticket to popularity. 

The real estate mogul’s surge began toward the end of July, after the press realized the spectacle he produced and began giving him blanket coverage and after his zealots gathered in huge rallies, signaling there was something to see here. 

In June and July, some 37 percent of the coverage of the whole presidential race on network news was devoted to Trump.

He then shot up to No. 1 in both early states. A New Hampshire NBC/Marist poll in September revealed a dramatic transformation, with 57 percent expressing favorable views of Trump and only 39 percent unfavorable.

Today the picture is slightly different. 

Trump still enjoys a wide lead in New Hampshire, but former surgeon Ben Carson has taken over the top spot in the HuffPollster averages in Iowa, though one of the two very latest polls does give the New Yorker a 1-point lead there. 

In February, I opined that despite leading in New Hampshire, “the underlying situation doesn’t augur well for [Jeb] Bush in either Iowa or New Hampshire.”

That at least still seems to be true, though one can never count out the leader in money and endorsements (endorsements, of course, don’t come from the same wing of the Republican Party as voters do).

The conventional wisdom insists it’s now Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRepublicans wary of US action on Iran California poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation MORE’s turn to move ahead. 

That conventional wisdom sometimes overwhelms the data. When a New Hampshire poll came out Tuesday, headlines breathlessly reported that the Florida senator had “tripled” his support. True, but when you recognize he went from 4 percent to 12 percent and was still in third place, it all seems a little less impressive.

To say I know what’s going to happen from here would be foolhardy.

At this point, Trump and Carson have to be taken seriously — as do GOP primary voters.

But they, particularly Trump, present an existential threat to the elected wing of the Republican Party, which will be decimated on Election Day if either of these men top the ticket. Republican electeds desperately need one (semi-) electable candidate to face the unelectable two for the balance of the primary season. 

If Donald Trump and/or Ben Carson emerge victorious from Iowa or New Hampshire, I believe the GOP establishment will quickly pick one person — most likely Rubio or Bush — and say, “You’re it. Everyone else out of the pool.” 

The donors will back them up because it will be a question of survival. 

Getting that nod may prove to be the final “primary” in the process.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the minority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.